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Turning Towards Nirvana

by E. A. Ross

1891

It needs no very long stay in Europe to detect a strange drooping of spirit. The rank corn and cotton optimism of the West quickly feels the deep sadness that lurks behind French balls, Prussian parades, and Italian festivals. Europe, when once you pry beneath its surface and find what its people are thinking and feeling, seems cankered and honeycombed with pessimism. You need go but a little way beyond the table d’hote and the guide book to feel the chill of despondency. Without taking into account this new mood, it is vain to try to understand the latest in art, music, fiction, poetry, thought, politics. The one word “despair” is the key that opens up the meaning of Ibsen’s dramas, and Tolstoi’s ethics, of Zola’s novels, and Carmen Sylva’s poems, of Bourget’s romances, and Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal. It is the spiritual bond that connects Wagner’s operas with Turgenieff’s novels, Amiel’s journal with Marie Bashkirtseff’s diary. Naturalism in fiction, “decadence” in poetry, realism in art, tragedy in music, scepticism in religion, cynicism in politics, and pessimism in philosophy, all spring from the same root. They are the means by which the age records its feelings of disillusionment.

The broad basis of the sadness of Europe to-day is keen political disappointment. Forty years ago everybody hailed the policy of free trade, peace, and international exhibitions as ushering in the era

“When the war drum throbs no longer, and the battle-flags are furled

In the Parliament of mankind, the Federation of the World.”

As if in mockery of these hopes came that terrific relapse of civilization between 1855 and 1870. Then came a pause, and hope might have revived had not the war epoch left behind it a strange and appalling condition.

No one so unfortunate as to live between the Bosphorus and the English Channel can view without dread the course Continental Europe has taken since 1870. The armies have increased until France and Germany alone have over six millions of soldiers. The Great Powers have now three armed men for every two of ten years ago. “Our armaments,” says Premier Crispi, “are ruining Europe for the benefit of America.” In a paper picked up in a Venetian café I read these lines:—

“Throughout Europe we now hear of nothing but smokeless powder and small bore rifles, heavy ironclads and swift cruisers, torpedo boats and dynamite guns. Europe seems hastening on to that time foretold by General Grant when, worn out by a fatal and ruinous policy, she will bow to the supremacy of peace-loving America, and learn anew from her the lessons of true civilization.”

Can we wonder that the European despairs? He finds himself aboard a train that seems speeding to sure destruction. Neither pope, nor churches, nor peace societies, nor alliances nor votes, can check its course. Nothing, it seems, can save Europe from the fatal plunge into the abyss of war. A shot on the Alsatian frontier, a plot hatched in a Servian barrack-room, or a riot in the Armenian quarter of Constantinople, may kindle a strife that may last, Von Moltke tells us, for thirty years.

It is true that many alarms have proved false, but then it is the steady strain that tells on the mood. It is pathetic to see on the continent, how men fear to face the future. Public speakers dwell upon the glories of former times. The churches seek to revive the spirit of the Middle Ages. In schools there is immense interest in history, archæology, and the classics. The age yearns to lose itself in the past, and delights in genre pictures of the naive olden time, or of life in remote valleys untouched by the breath of progress. No one has heart to probe the next decade, to ask, “Where shall we be in ten years,—in fifty years?” The outlook is bounded by the next Sunday in the park or the theatre. The people throw themselves into the pleasures of the moment with the desperation of doomed men who hear the ring of the hammer on the scaffold. Ibsen, applying an old sailor’s superstition to the European ship of state, tells how one night he stood on the deck and looked down on the throng of passengers, each the victim of some form of brooding melancholy or dark presentiment, and as he looked he seemed to hear a voice crying, “There’s a corpse on board!”

With the growth of armies has come a gloomier view of life. The vision of the nations “lapped in universal law” has vanished, and the new phrase, “struggle for existence,” seems to sum up human history. War has been raised to the dignity of a means of progress and killing has been consecrated by biology. Not long ago three noted men, Count Von Moltke, General Wolseley, and Ex-Minister Phelps, declared it vain to hope for a time when wars should vanish from the earth. In Germany the youth are filled with the brutal cynicism of Prince Bismarck. “Blood and iron does it,” said a Berlin divinity student to me. “You can no more stop war than you can stop the thunderbolt when two clouds meet charged with opposite electricities.” “No,” said another, “Europe has too many people, too much pressure on the boundaries. There must be a war now and then to thin them out.”

With loss of faith in moral progress men have lost faith in political progress. The ideals of ‘48 are passé. Liberty, equality, and fraternity are exploded bubbles. The imperialism of Bismarck, the foe of popular government and champion of divine right, rules the hour. To the fighting type of society the politics of industrial democracy seem absurd. You cannot set up the hustings in an armed camp of twenty-eight millions. Kings and nobles, rank and privilege, police, spies, and censors—all those hoary abuses that roused the men of ‘48,—are deemed necessary to a strong military state. They are hallowed by the new phrase of political fatalism “historical continuity.”

This drift of thought cannot but lead to a despairing view. Civilization seems to have lost itself in a cul-de-sac. Progress has ended in an aimless discontent. The schools have produced, according to Bismarck, ten times as many overeducated young men as there are places to fill. The thirst for culture has produced a great, hungry, intellectual proletariat. The forces of darkness are still strong, and it seems sometimes as if the Middle Ages will swallow up everything won by modern struggles. The Liberal wonders at moments if he be not really fighting against destiny. Often in his Culturkampf with Ultramontanism has he proved the truth of Gambetta’s saying, “Le clericalism, voila l’ennemi!

Science, too, has had its share in disturbing men’s minds. Science, during the last twenty years, has been most successful in studying the past. It has traced the origin of institutions and followed the upward path of man. It has lifted the veil of mystery. It says, “See, I can show you how our feelings arose. I will lay bare the root of modesty, of filial piety, sexual love, patriotism, loyalty, justice, honor, æsthetic delight, conscience, religion, fear of God. I will explain the origin of institutions like the household, the church, the state. I will show the rise of prayer, worship, sacrifice, marriage-customs, ceremonies social forms, and laws. Nothing is found mysterious, nothing unique, nothing divine. There is no need of looking for a stream of tendency, an influx from another source, the descent of a new power. The notion of a soul from a spiritual world encysted in customs and feelings developed upon it by nature, is a myth. Man is a formation. The race has accommodated itself to its environment as a stream to its bed. The manifold adaptation of Nature to man is really the adaptation of man to Nature. To marvel at it is as if the cake should marvel at the fit of the dough-pan. Everything in man is the outcome of forces and conditions still present with us. Man and his civilization are held suspended in protoplasm and sunlight. Let but a plague sweep us away to-day, and to-morrow would begin the second evolution of man.”

But science, not content with tracing institutions, has been analyzing personality. We see now that there can never again be such an orgie of the Ego as that led by Fichte and Hegel. The doctrines of transmission and inheritance have attacked the independence of the individual. Science finds no ego, self or will that can maintain itself against the past. Heredity rules our lives like that supreme primeval necessity that stood above the Olympian gods. “It is the last of the fates,” says Wilde, “and the most terrible. It is the only one of the gods whose real name we know.” It is the “divinity that shapes our ends” and hurls down the deities of freedom and choice. Science dissolves the personality into temperaments and susceptibilities, predispositions, and transmitted taints, atavisms, and reversions. It finds the soul not a spiritual unit, but a treacherous compound of strange contradictions and warring tendencies, with traces of spent passion and vestiges of ancient sins, with echoes of forgotten deeds and survivals of vanished habits. We are “possessed” not by demons but by the dead. These are in Ibsen’s drama the real ghosts which throng our lives and haunt our footsteps, remorseless as the furies. We are followed by the shades of our ancestors who visit us, not with midnight squeak and gibber, but in the broad noonday, speaking with our speech, and doing with our deed. We are bound to a destiny fixed before birth, and choice is the greatest of illusions. The world is indeed a stage, and life is but a hollow ceremony, spontaneous enough to the eye, but wherein the actors recite speeches and follow stage directions written for them long before they were born. Thus science grinds color for our modern Rembrandts.

The final blow to the old notion of the ego is given by the doctrine of multiple individuality. Science tells of the conscious and the sub-conscious, of the higher nerve centres and the lower, of the double cerebrum and the wayward ganglia. It hints at the many voiceless beings that live out in our body their joy and pain, and scarce give sign, dwellers in the sub-centres, with whom, it may be, often lies the initiative when the conscious centre thinks itself free. This I is, no doubt, a hierarchy or commonwealth of psychical units that at death dissolves and sinks below the threshold of consciousness.

It is plain, then, that the swift spread of science has brought men into a new universe. Few there are that can adorn the new home with ornaments saved from the old. For most men the universe which science tells of rises about them unsightly and barn-like, with bare walls and naked rafters, and until art can beautify the walls, and poetry gild the rafters, men will have that appalling feeling of being nowhere at home, that awful sinking as if the bottom were dropping out of all things.

The last great motive to despair is supplied by Indo-German philosophy. Under the headship of Schopenhauer and Von Hartmann, there has grown up of late a black pessimism rooted in Hindoo thought, and allied to that strange exotic cult of Eastern religions that has enabled Neo-Buddhism to proselyte even in Christian Europe. Its success has been brilliant. In twenty years Hartmann’s “Philosophy of the Unconscious” has reached its tenth German edition, entered all the great languages of Europe, and called forth a vast literature of its own. Thoroughly in touch with modern culture and gifted with a striking style, Hartmann is to-day, perhaps, the best read philosopher on the continent.

Hartmann dwells upon the sorrow inherent in all existence. Happiness, whether expected in one’s own life, in an ecstatic life beyond the grave, or in the far future of humanity, is an illusion. The breaking through this illusion is progress. Consciousness itself is built on pain. Life is an evil best cured by quenching the will to live. The world is a mistake—a stupendous blunder of the blind unconscious. From it there is no escape until the world is hurled back into nothingness by a supreme effort of the collective human will. To bring about this replunge into Nirvana is the goal of the world process. The vast scheme of nature, the slow growth of mind up the long scale of organic forms, the high intelligence that crowns the summit of life—all these exist to bring forth the pessimist. He alone has gained true culture, and reached a rational insight into the emptiness of existence. He alone has rent the veil of Maya and pierced the last illusion. His task is to waken humanity, now tossing on its bed of pain, from the spell of the great alluring world-dream. By showing the vanity of endeavor he is to still the fatal lust for life and bring all men to despair and longing for Nirvana. Thus does he become the true savior of mankind; for at this point the world, obeying the desperate resolve of the human race, will vanish utterly,

“And like the baseless fabric of a dream

Leave not a rack behind.”

The pessimistic temper of the age reveals itself in every field where mood finds utterance. Every book that makes a sensation does it by virtue of the phase of despair it presents. Every drama that creates a furore does it by uncovering some new tragic element in life. Anything optimistic falls flat. The literary men of Europe are recklessly underbidding each other in the attempt to show that life is sadder, or meaner, or baser, or emptier than had been supposed. The cynic and the pessimist share public attention. Not that European writers are insincere. The authors and thinkers themselves have been the first to feel the Zeitgeist. They have written as they have because they have found the melancholy view of life the most fruitful thing in recent culture. They have found it the richest in novelty, surprises, images, scenes, reflections, effects, and sensations. The worthlessness of life is an idea that agrees with science, meets the mood of the age, and fires the imagination of the artist.

The French, Norwegian, and Russian realism of the last decade is the utterance of later pessimism. For the term “realism” describes something more than an art. It describes an ethical view. It means the conviction of Flaubert: “You may fatten the human beast, give him straw up to his belly, and gild his manger; but he remains a brute, say what you will.” The realists are filled with the scientific notions of human nature. They base romances on psychology, physiology, or pathology. They study Darwin, and Spencer, and Ribot. They look constantly for the traces of the savage cave-dweller. The great masters,—Tolstoï, Zola, Ibsen, Maupassant, Flaubert, Gautier, Loti, Bourget,—as well as their swarms of disciples, are ever on the watch for marks of decadence, or for vestiges of the brute in man’s instincts and passions. To the old romanticism of Victor Hugo they oppose blunt truth-telling and remorseless analysis. They spare no illusions. “Love, marriage, family,” cries Tolstoi’s hero, “are lies, lies, lies!”

This same ethical spirit is shared by realism in art. A painter seeking in the work-house a model for his “job,” an actress visiting the hospital to learn how to simulate dying,—these show the modern appetite for the morbid. Modern music, too, does not escape the times’ spirit. The sad Titanic works of Wagner, the friend and disciple of Schopenhauer, bear witness to the mystical affinity of music and despair.

Most of our great critics of life,—Saint Beauve, Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, Scherer, Amiel, Tolstoï, and Ruskin—have felt, or at least recognized, the powerful fascination of the new evangel of bafflement and despair.

The hastiest glance at recent European poetry shows the prominence of the mystery of pain. Poetry from Byron, Leopardi, and Heine, to Pushkin and Carmen Sylva, Baudelaire and Matthew Arnold, has circled about the tragedy of suffering and disenchantment. Even Tennyson sadly asks in a recent poem:—

“What is it all, if we all of us end but in being our own corpse-coffins at last,

Swallowed in Vastness, lost in Silence, drowned in the deeps of a meaningless Past?”

Since the time of Goethe, poetry has turned from Hellenic to Hindoo sources. Cultured Europe seizes with a strange eagerness on the sublime, dreamy conceptions that underlie Hindoo pantheism—Sansara, the unabiding pain-world; Nirvana world of rest and re-absorption; the deceptive veil of Maya, the wheel of life, the melting bubbles poured from the bowl of Saki, the Brahma fallen from unity and serenity into multiplicity and pain, the illusion of birth and death, the evil of all individual existence, the retreat from life, the euthanasia of the will and the return to non-existence,—these with their rich train of imagery thrill the jaded and blasé European with a rare and profound emotion. Besides these spoils, the poet of to-day revels in the results of later metaphysics. The naïve balance of pleasure and pain is disturbed. Suffering becomes an almost supernatural fact hid in a halo of mystery, and is not to be blotted out by any quantity of joy. One single pang is enough to condemn the world as worse than nothingness. This inexplicable fact of suffering takes on a mystical meaning, and becomes thereby the pivot of a new faith. And so, as the altar lights of the old worship of sorrow grow dim, there rises the legend of a suffering unconscious.